Member of the Family, by Dianne Lake (Review)

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Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Mason, Life Inside His Cult, and the Darkness that Ended the Sixties
by Dianne Lake

Genre: Nonfiction, True Crime, Memoir

Length: 384 Pages

Release date: October 24, 2017

Publisher: William Morrow

Synopsis: 

In this poignant and disturbing memoir of lost innocence, coercion, survival, and healing, Dianne Lake chronicles her years with Charles Manson, revealing for the first time how she became the youngest member of his Family and offering new insights into one of the twentieth century’s most notorious criminals and life as one of his “girls”

At age fourteen Dianne Lake—with little more than a note in her pocket from her hippie parents granting her permission to leave them—became one of “Charlie’s girls,” a devoted acolyte of cult leader Charles Manson. Over the course of two years, the impressionable teenager endured manipulation, psychological control, and physical abuse as the harsh realities and looming darkness of Charles Manson’s true nature revealed itself. From Spahn ranch and the group acid trips, to the Beatles’ White Album and Manson’s dangerous messiah-complex, Dianne tells the riveting story of the group’s descent into madness as she lived it.

Though she never participated in any of the group’s gruesome crimes and was purposely insulated from them, Dianne was arrested with the rest of the Manson Family, and eventually learned enough to join the prosecution’s case against them. With the help of good Samaritans, including the cop who first arrested her and later adopted her, the courageous young woman eventually found redemption and grew up to lead an ordinary life.

While much has been written about Charles Manson, this riveting account from an actual Family member is a chilling portrait that recreates in vivid detail one of the most horrifying and fascinating chapters in modern American history.

Member of the Family includes 16 pages of photographs.

ratingfour

Member of the Family was not entirely what I expected, and I think in this case that was a good thing. A pretty significant portion of the book takes place before Charles Manson was ever on Dianne Lake’s radar, and this makes for a pretty interesting character study in what made Lake vulnerable to be recruited into a cult. She was just 14 years old and her parents had more or less checked out. Like many who find themselves recruited into cults, Lake was feeling incredibly isolated and desperate for some sense of belonging and stability. Charlie’s “family” seemed like they could provide that for her, and the prospect of being treated as an adult was also enticing to an adolescent.

Lake was not present for any of the infamous murders committed by Manson’s followers, although she was in the cult at the time the crimes occurred. Consequently, the book is devoid of any graphic descriptions of the group’s murder spree (something I think we can all do without.) However, the book should come with a content warning for physical and sexual abuse of a child. Lake suffered what she only later recognized as sexual abuse at the hands of older men starting from a very young age. This left her primed to be subject to Manson’s influence, as that behavior had been normalized for her.

Member of the Family is a difficult read at times, but an excellent first-hand exploration of the before, during, and after of becoming entrenched in a violent cult. Lake seems to have built a normal and healthy life for herself in the aftermath, keeping out of the public eye. I definitely recommend this book to true crime readers or people who are interested in the psychology behind cults.

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Thank you for reading! Have you read any good true crime books lately? Let me know in the comments!

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Chase Darkness with Me: How One True-Crime Writer Started Solving Murders, by Billy Jensen (Review)

Currently listening to: Chase Darkness With Me: How One True-Crime Writer Started Solving Murders, by Billy Jensen.
(Currently an Audible exclusive! Thank you to @audible for providing a free copy in exchange for a review!)
Jensen first came on to my...
Chase Darkness with Me
by Billy Jensen

Genre: True Crime

Length:

Release date: April 11, 2019

Publisher: Audible Audio

Synopsis: 

Have you ever wanted to solve a murder? Gather the clues the police overlooked. Put together the pieces. Identify the suspect.

Journalist Billy Jensen spent 15 years investigating unsolved murders, fighting for the families of victims. Every story he wrote had one thing in common – it didn’t have an ending. The killer was still out there.

But after the sudden death of a friend, crime writer Michelle McNamara, Billy became fed up. Following a dark night, he came up with a plan. A plan to investigate past the point when the cops have given up. A plan to solve the murders himself.

In Chase Darkness with Me, you’ll ride shotgun as Billy identifies the Halloween Mask Murderer, finds a missing girl in the California Redwoods, and investigates the only other murder in New York City on 9/11. You’ll hear intimate details of the hunts for two of the most terrifying serial killers in history: his friend Michelle’s pursuit of the Golden State Killer which is chronicled in I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, a book Billy helped finish after Michelle’s passing, and his own quest to find the murderer of the Allenstown 4 family.

Gripping, complex, unforgettable, Chase Darkness with Me is an examination of the evil forces that walk among us, illustrating a novel way to catch those killers, and a true crime narrative unlike any you’ve listened to before.

ratingfive

My thanks to Audible for allowing me free access to this audio book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. This audio book is currently an Audible Exclusive. 

True crime can be a touchy subject. What are the ethics of consuming someone else’s tragedy as entertainment? Jensen’s work and the way he works to essentially crowd-source murder investigations means that this book necessarily tangles with some of the thornier ethical questions surrounding true crime. The overall impression is of a man with deep respect for the wishes of families searching for answers about their loved ones; there is no hint of voyeurism or sensationalism.

Chase Darkness with Me explores Jensen’s early work as a journalist, working at the beck and call of news organizations and being told what to cover. After experiencing the shame and discomfort of being pressed to pester a grieving family for an interview, he decided to do things his own way, which would not involve sitting idly on the sidelines. Jensen began digging into unsolved crimes, using social media ads to blast targeted areas with surveillance footage, sketches of suspects, or whatever else he had to work with.  The method is simple but effective. Jensen walks the listener through the twists and turns of the cases he was able to help solve with the aid of the public and social media.

Michelle McNamara, author of I’ll be Gone in the Dark and friend of Billy Jensen, also plays a role in this book. Jensen was one of the writers who helped to complete I’ll be Gone in the Dark from Michelle’s notes after her sudden death in 2016. Chase Darkness with Me touches on Jensen’s friendship with Michelle and his efforts to ensure that her tireless research into the then unsolved case of the Golden State Killer was not wasted. Michelle McNamara unfortunately passed away before police ever made an arrest in the case, but Jensen was able to see his friend’s work come to fruition in 2018 with the arrest of James DeAngelo. (The official stance of police is that Michelle’s book did not have an impact on the case, but Jensen and many of Michelle’s fans have their doubts.)

The book is as much a call to action as it is storytelling, with an addendum outlining the do’s and don’ts for readers who may want to do investigative work of their own. Jensen’s rules place the wishes of the victims’ families at the forefront and also emphasize the importance of backing off when police have a suspect in their sights; the last thing anyone investigating a crime wants to do is give the culprit a heads-up that they’re being watched closely and cause them to run. While extra-judicial investigative work is necessarily controversial, Jensen clearly adheres to a strict set of guidelines which maximize his chance of being an asset rather than a liability.

Chase Darkness with Me is true crime at its best, told with utmost care and compassion for the victims of each case. It’s not true crime writing in the typical sense, as the author has inserted himself into these stories in a much more direct manner than most writers, but I think the writing is stronger for it. Each case is intensely personal to Jensen and this absolutely shines through in the final product.

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Review – Rust & Stardust, by T. Greenwood

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Rust & Stardust
by T. Greenwood

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 368 Pages

Release date: August 7, 2018

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Synopsis: 

Camden, NJ, 1948.

When 11 year-old Sally Horner steals a notebook from the local Woolworth’s, she has no way of knowing that 52 year-old Frank LaSalle, fresh out of prison, is watching her, preparing to make his move. Accosting her outside the store, Frank convinces Sally that he’s an FBI agent who can have her arrested in a minute—unless she does as he says.

This chilling novel traces the next two harrowing years as Frank mentally and physically assaults Sally while the two of them travel westward from Camden to San Jose, forever altering not only her life, but the lives of her family, friends, and those she meets along the way.

rating

five

Sally Horner’s tragic ordeal inspired Nabokov’s classic novel, Lolita, but the real story is even more heart-breaking. I must admit that I was hesitant to pick this book up for fear that it would feel exploitative of the young victim of such a heinous crime. However, after seeing one glowing review after another, I decided to give it a chance, and I was pleasantly surprised by this novel.

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The subject matter obviously invites comparison with Lolita, and I think that draws attention to one of the novel’s greatest strengths: the focus is on the victim rather than the twisted mindset of the perpetrator. Nabokov’s work is an exploration of the depths of darkness; Greenwood’s book places the focus on the victim and feels more inherently respectful. Lolita is not so much about Lolita as it is about Humbert Humbert. Greenwood draws Sally Horner to the center of the narrative, giving her a voice and inviting us to empathize with her and her family.

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Florence Sally Horner

The novel maintains what feels like an appropriate distance from the sexual assaults which Sally suffered, generally skipping straight from the instigation to the aftermath. Greenwood refrains from using these events for cheap shock value and instead focuses on Sally’s attempts to process what is happening to her and her longing for home.

Rust and Stardust is told primarily from Sally’s perspective, but has multiple POVs throughout, often capturing the near misses when Sally encounters people who could potentially help her. Over and over, we hear things like, “Someone should do something about that.” These are the most heartbreaking part of the novel, in a lot of ways. Neighbors and teachers get a vague feeling from Sally that something isn’t quite right with her home life, but in the absence of any solid evidence, they feel helpless. These moments are heartbreaking because they are painfully relatable; who among us hasn’t witnessed something that was just enough to give us pause, just enough to leave a niggling sense of uncertainty at the back of our minds? Maybe it’s nothing, but what if…? Sally’s story forces us to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions about what to do in these situations.

On top of Greenwood’s delicate handling of such an ugly subject, Rust and Stardust is simply artistically lovely, with lyrical prose that could have you turning the pages for the pure music of her words. This is emotional and not an easy read, by any means. It will reach into you and wrap cold, unforgiving fingers around your heart, but I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

How sad was it that grief had a shelf life, he thought. It’s only fresh and raw for so long before it begins to spoil. And soon enough, it would be replaced by a newer, brighter heartache – the old one discarded and eventually forgotten.

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Have you read Rust and Stardust? What were your thoughts?
How do you feel about reading books based on real-life crimes? Does it make a difference when the victim is a child? Discuss in the comments!

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Review – I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, by Michelle McNamara

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I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer
by Michelle McNamara

Genre: Nonfiction / True Crime

Length: 352 Pages

Published: February 27, 2018

five

Blurb via GoodReads: 

For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.

2ca3050a29736eacd78428d090d60efa_400x400Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist who created the popular website TrueCrimeDiary.com, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called “the Golden State Killer.” Michelle pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.

At the time of the crimes, the Golden State Killer was between the ages of eighteen and thirty, Caucasian, and athletic—capable of vaulting tall fences. He always wore a mask. After choosing a victim—he favored suburban couples—he often entered their home when no one was there, studying family pictures, mastering the layout. He attacked while they slept, using a flashlight to awaken and blind them. Though they could not recognize him, his victims recalled his voice: a guttural whisper through clenched teeth, abrupt and threatening.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark—the masterpiece McNamara was writing at the time of her sudden death—offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind. It is also a portrait of a woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth. Framed by an introduction by Gillian Flynn and an afterword by her husband, Patton Oswalt, the book was completed by Michelle’s lead researcher and a close colleague. Utterly original and compelling, it is destined to become a true crime classic—and may at last unmask the Golden State Killer. flourish

The last true crime book I read before this was Hunting Charles Manson: The Quest for Justice in the Days of Helter Skelter, by Lis Wiehl, and it left me feeling… unfulfilled. The marketing and blurb suggested a book that was focused primarily on the police work that eventually led to the arrests and convictions of Manson and the other Manson Family members, but that is not what Wiehl delivered. Instead, it felt like she was using the Manson family as a cautionary tale about drug use, going so far as to hint in the author’s note at the end that the legalization of marijuana would inevitably lead to another similar tragedy. In short: yikes.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark was everything I had wanted out of Hunting Charles Manson and then some. McNamara successfully avoids one of the major pitfalls of true crime books, which is that they can feel terribly exploitative of the victims. McNamara’s book is imbued with a sense of respect for the victims and an intense desire to bring their tormentor to justice. She does not dangle sordid details in front of the reader in an attempt to horrify and thrill. She makes ample use of pseudonyms for still living victims. Her hatred for the man who committed these crimes in palpable.

At the time of McNamara’s writing, the Golden State Killer had not yet been identified. Consequently, the focus is very much on the evidence available and the police work which had been done to that point, as well as McNamara’s personal efforts in the case, time spent combing over old evidence and going through true crime discussion boards online to look for new leads and ideas. There is a sense of deep personal investment in the case which is contagious.

Joseph DeAngelo was identified as the Golden State Killer and arrested earlier this year, after McNamara’s death and the posthumous publication of her book. The police were able to identify him by comparing DNA samples from crime scenes to commercial DNA databases online, a possible avenue for identification which McNamara explored in her book. The book closes with a letter from McNamara to the killer; there is something eerie but also heart-wrenching about reading it after her death, knowing she did not live to see the monster she was hunting captured.

One day soon, you’ll hear a car pull up to your curb, an engine cut out. You’ll hear footsteps coming up your front walk. Like they did for Edward Wayne Edwards, twenty-nine years after he killed Timothy Hack and Kelly Drew, in Sullivan, Wisconsin. Like they did for Kenneth Lee Hicks, thirty years after he killed Lori Billingsley, in Aloha, Oregon.

The doorbell rings.

No side gates are left open. You’re long past leaping over a fence. Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths. Clench your teeth. Inch timidly toward the insistent bell.

This is how it ends for you.

“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark,” you threatened a victim once.

Open the door. Show us your face.

Walk into the light.

This book was incomplete at the time of McNamara’s death. It was completed by piecing together her notes and drawing from her previous work on the subject. Given this, one might expect it to feel sloppy and disjointed, but that is not the case. Those who picked up the pieces to complete McNamara’s work for her did it true justice. Any fan of true crime will want to add this book to their collection.

Order via Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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